Xaphan sat in the center of a raging maelstrom of power. The Mists of Chaos that surrounded the island in Leon’s soul realm swirled around him in great clouds, while the enchantment he created siphoned off a few wisps, purified the magical power, and channeled it into the demon’s body where it would nourish his withered core.
This process lasted for several hours until one of the four sapphires broke with a loud crack, causing the entire enchantment to fail and the cloud of mist above the demon to immediately dissipate.
With a sigh of disappointment, Xaphan sat back and took stock. His power had grown substantially in those few hours, so he wasn’t that upset, but much like with the potion he had Leon take, it had had the potential to be significantly more effective.
[You done, demon?] Leon suddenly asked, having heard Xaphan’s sigh.
[Yes, I’ve done all I can with what you gave me,] Xaphan said as he examined the other four gems. The three sapphires were notably less lustrous, though they were at least intact. The sapphire that broke had split right down the middle, preventing it from holding magic power and essentially rendering it into nothing more than a dull blue rock. The diamond was the best looking of them all, but whereas it had sparkled before, it was now cloudy and much less radiant. [I don’t think even the most skilled of jewelers could make these attractive anymore,] Xaphan muttered.
[You broke the stones?] Leon asked with mild annoyance. He hadn’t paid any money for the gems, but they were still extraordinarily expensive. In the year and a half that he’d been serving Prince Trajan, his account with Heaven’s Eye had grown to more than eight million silver—it was quite lucrative to be a knight serving a Prince—but Leon would still hesitate to buy those gems, they were worth so much.
[Hmm, one broke, the others won’t be able to stand much more magic put through them. I was, admittedly, a little rough on them,] Xaphan said.
[What did you do?] Leon demanded to know.
[I used an enchantment to help me to absorb the Mists of Chaos that surrounds your soul realm,] Xaphan said.
[So is that why I feel slightly hollow?] Leon asked.
[Probably,] Xaphan admitted. [However, the Mists of Chaos are not yours, they are a primordial force that surrounds all soul realms. The Mists are a, quite literally, unlimited resource. You may feel a little empty right now, but that feeling will pass as the Mists replenish themselves.]
Leon carefully controlled his reaction. He was busy monitoring Alix’s training, as well as training himself, and he didn’t want to look mysteriously furious just sitting at the edge of the sandpit.
[How about you explain in detail what this enchantment of yours did?] Leon asked, controlling his tone just as much as he was ensuring that his face maintained its usual stoicism.
Again, Xaphan sighed, and he simply sent the entire enchantment into Leon’s head, as he had done with the spells that countered Bran’s darkness magic. The enchantment was so complex and so dense with information, though, that Leon experienced a momentary sensation of vertigo and almost lost his lunch.
[Why don’t you do me a favor and build one of these when you get started on your mind palace?] Xaphan said. [I suppose you’ll be able to use it as well, but if it’s not properly built then it’ll break just as mine did.]
[So, you didn’t build it right?] Leon asked as he caught his breath and consigned the information he was just given to memory.
[I may reside within your soul realm, but it is not my space. Anything I create is temporary and not as sturdy as it could be,] Xaphan answered testily, clearly annoyed that he had to explain this to Leon.
[I’ll consider building one,] Leon conceded. He was personally quite curious as to how the enchantment worked, and he intended to study it in his off time. But there was one last thing he wanted to know. [By the way, demon, how strong are you now?]
[Hmm, that’s hard to say without a more thorough test, but I’d say I’m currently equal to an eighth-tier mage,] Xaphan answered, and Leon again had to control his reaction, but this time it was abject shock and surprise.
Before anything else could be said, though, there was a loud knock at Leon’s door. Putting the conversation on hold, Leon shook himself out of his shock and quickly went to answer, finding one of Trajan’s assistants on the other side of the door.
“Sir Ursus, you’ve been summoned to a council by order of His Highness,” the assistant said.
Trajan’s meeting room was silent as a grave. The Prince, Legates, Tribunes, and diplomats who had assembled were all staring at one person: a woman standing in the center of the room before Trajan’s raised dais.
“What I have said is true,” Marshal Gwen said. “The Elder Council and Her Majesty have jointly disavowed Prince Owain’s actions here. He has been stripped of his titles and authority and is being recalled to Pretani. The same happened with Marshal Arthwyn. If either continues this war, they will be committing treason against the Talfar Kingdom, and no action will be taken by Her Majesty regardless of how Your Highness wishes to deal with the matter.”
“You say these things, and yet there is still an army of a hundred and fifty thousand encamped uncomfortably close to my walls,” Trajan growled.
“I just arrived a few hours ago,” Gwen explained. “There hasn’t been enough time to direct Owain’s army back to Briga. I simply wanted to come here first to request a temporary truce while I and my subordinates see to its disbandment.”
Trajan glared down at the Talfar Marshal, his eyes unblinking and his killing intent soaring. And yet, Gwen didn’t so much as bat an eye, even with the other knights in the room doing likewise. Trajan couldn’t help but be impressed by her composure, but he wasn’t sure he believed her.
“What proof of your claims do you carry?” Trajan asked.
Gwen instantly summoned several letters from her soul realm and held them out for the entire room to see.
“These are letters written in Her Majesty’s own hand specifically stating her hope for peace between our Kingdoms, and that Prince Owain’s actions were not directed by her. She wishes to restore the peace that settled between us eighty years ago and has ordered the immediate withdrawal of Prince Owain and his army. Her Majesty has also requested that this unfortunate dispute be settled through diplomatic channels rather than through force of arms.”
“Would Queen Andraste be saying these things if she weren’t fighting a war in the east?” Saufeia wondered out loud. Her 21st Legion had suffered the most casualties out of any of the units stationed at the Horns, and while she would accept whatever decision Trajan made on the issue, seeing a negotiated peace at this stage wouldn’t be satisfying to her.
“I believe Her Majesty would fight for peace,” Gwen replied.
“You missed your calling, Marshal,” Aquillius stated with a wide smile, “you would make a fine diplomat with such an ambiguous answer.”
“And what part of my answer was ambiguous?” Gwen inquired, smirking at the diplomat.
“How, exactly, would your Queen ‘fight’ for peace?”
“Enough,” Trajan growled, and Gwen’s retort died in her throat. “Let me read that letter.”
Gwen handed over the one addressed to him, then the last two she carried to Aquillius and Fonteius, the diplomats assigned to Trajan and operations in the Talfar Kingdom, respectively. The contents of the letters were just as Gwen described, and they had not only Queen Andraste’s signature but her personal seal as well.
But Trajan wasn’t impressed. “Paper and ink is all well and good,” he said, “but what concrete assurances can you give that your intentions are honorable?”
“What assurances would you like? My Queen has bestowed upon me the power to negotiate binding treaties, so whatever you need, I’ll happily consider,” Gwen replied, causing all of the diplomats in the room to stare at her in disbelief. She wasn’t herself a diplomat, after all, and giving such a privilege to a military officer wasn’t something that was done in the Bull Kingdom.
Gwen waited patiently for Trajan to give voice to his desires, but the Prince simply glanced over at Aquillius, who nodded and rose from his seat.
“My Lady,” he began, drawing Gwen’s attention, “one thing we would like to see before anything is for the Talfar warriors occupying Florentia to remove themselves from the city.”
“Florentia is not your city to bargain for…” Gwen said with a hint of confusion.
“It was established by citizens of the Bull Kingdom, and those citizens are now refugees languishing in our docks. We want your guarantee that they are safe to return home.”
Gwen made a show of thinking about the matter, propping up her right arm on her left and resting her head on her knuckles, but after several seconds, she said, “Done.”
Pulling the Talfar warriors out of Florentia would dramatically diminish their war potential, but if the Legions swooped in to occupy the city in turn, Gwen was confident that she could oust them. Regardless, she didn’t think that the Bull had enough soldiers to assault the Talfar camp regardless of the position of their Legions; if they had, she believed they’d have done so already. In other words, this was an easy deal to make, and if it brought some trust between their two Kingdoms, Gwen was happy to do it.
Aquillius was slightly stunned that Gwen agreed, but he managed to maintain his dignity and simply smile and say, “Wonderful.”
“Is there anything else the Bull wants?” Gwen asked. “As I said, Queen Andraste is committed to peace, so now’s the time to ask…”
“We’ll wait until your army pulls back to Briga before we begin negotiations,” Aquillius said.
Gwen looked to Trajan, but the Prince merely said, “Then that is that.”
Suddenly, a high-pitched alarm sounded that stabbed right into the ears of everyone in the meeting room. Several Legates bolted up and drew their weapons, trapping Gwen between them.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Gwen shouted, struggling to make her voice heard above the alarm.
Trajan slapped a runic circle on the dais beside him and the alarm shut off. He then rose from his seat and began walking to his office in the back of the meeting room. “We’ll see,” the Prince responded to the Marshal.
Once in his office, Trajan stared out his window and saw that the Talfar army had left its camp and was slowly marching west toward the walls. From what he could see, they were fully armored and in battle formations, and their siege towers were right behind the front lines.
Striding back into the meeting room, where the Legates and Tribunes were clearly anxious and starting to panic after the alarm, Trajan stated, “The Talfar army is on the move toward us. Get to your stations!”
Instantly, the commanders sprang to their feet and began to hurriedly leave the meeting room.
Trajan walked over to Gwen, looked the Marshal in the eye, and asked, “Were you sent here as a distraction?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” she shouted in protest and the three Legates that surrounded her pressed in just a little bit closer in case she tried anything with the Prince.
Trajan sighed, then said, “Take her into custody. We can work out what’s going on after the battle.”
“Is this how you treat diplomatic guests, Prince Trajan?! I am here as a representative of my Kingdom, and you take me prisoner?!” Gwen indignantly shouted.
“There are chambers in the Diplomatic Corps suited for one of your station, My Lady,” Aquillius stated. “They’re secure, so perhaps we can let her wait there while we sort out this situation?”
Trajan nodded his assent, and Aquillius and the other two sixth-tier diplomats took custody of Gwen, allowing the other three Legates to see to their duties.
As Trajan himself was leaving, he turned and said, “Ursus! On me!”
Leon dutifully followed Trajan, but in his heart, he couldn’t help but feel immensely disappointed. There was about to be a battle, and he wouldn’t participate in it at all. Of course, he wasn’t about to argue, but the disappointment was there, nonetheless.
As they were leaving the meeting room, Leon heard Trajan mutter, “Devious little bastards, luring most of our commanders away from the walls with talk of peace.”
There were a couple Legates and Tribunes that were still on the walls in case something like this happened, and Minerva was in command while Trajan was speaking with Gwen, so it wasn’t like the units were devoid of leadership. Besides, all of those Legates and Tribunes in the meeting room would easily reach their posts by the time the Talfar army entered trebuchet and arrow range, so Trajan was inclined to believe that this offer of peace wasn’t made in bad faith.
Still, the Talfar army was now marching on Ariminium, and he wasn’t going to allow that at all.
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